After a five-year break, Liz Janes returns with plenty to say, but you'll have to listen closely.
Liz Janes really got her career started when some of her music found its way to Sufjan Stevens, leading to her 2002 debut Done Gone Fire. The album highlighted both Janes's ability to bring a weirdness to folk, and an ability to bring jazz influences and a strong sense of phrasing to her vocals. A few years later, she released the challenging Poison & Snakes, pushing the avant-folk and blues a little further. Her 2005 EP with jazz-influenced Create(!) showed a willingness to turn tradition completely on its head. Then she disappeared for a few years.
Given her nature for upending expectations, it's only fitting that her return to recording would be called Say Goodbye and would mark a substantial shift in sound. In the sparse blippy “Up From Down”, Janes expresses utter confusion before repeatedly asking, “Does anyone know who I am?” The question's an existential one, but it could be a set up for the album, not because Janes doesn't know -- she's confident and precise throughout -- but because it forces fans to reconsider their opinions.
Janes has said this album was to be a sort of soul record. While you won't have to work too hard to find an R&B influence on something like “Bodies”, this isn't any sort of traditional soul album. The sound here comes much closer to a jazz record, which fits with her vocal work in the past, but as much as the album won't be shelved next to Sam Cooke, it won't come up next to Billie Holiday either, largely because of the unpredictable and gently experimental music she sings over.
The genre-denying sound of the music largely gives the album much of its strength and intrigue, but, as in the past, Janes provides lyrics that are both rewarding and demanding. Her lines often read as unfinished explorations, with Janes lost in spiritual thought. There are struggles here, but Janes refuses to give in. “Who Will Take Care” finds her “falling into a black hole” before discovering her “only hope now in a mystery/A merciful, benevolent deity”.
That track, like much of the album, moves slowly and spaciously, and yet nothing about the music is easy. The percussion falls seemingly at will, challenging both the song's tempo and time signature, but it does so without hindering the easy flow of Janes's vocals. It's a nice use of complex restraint. Other songs provide similar rewards on close listening, revealing a track that could almost work in a lounge setting to be full of unlikely moments.
“Trees” might come the closest to a pop song on anything on the album, offering some bounce and a more straightforward melody (only relatively, though, as Janes uses scattered pauses and rushed lyrics to keep us off balance). Even so, we still go along with her as “space caved in”, we contemplate our existence as “just creatures; we have been created”, and we ponder a “force we take turns making names for”. Despite the complexity, the song provides a lift in its awe.
Closing number “Time and Space” considers the title conceptions to be “constructs of grace”, a heavy idea to begin a song that plays as a lullaby. It's here that Janes does “say goodbye” while “longing for eternity”, still in an area between reverie and philosophical contemplation. As an ending number, the track brings a sort of closure to the doubt and hope that drives the rest of the disc, allowing a peaceful resolution to the shifting thoughts and refining the tie between uncertainty and faith. It's a compelling whisper, and one from someone who should have plenty more to say.